A 37-year old mother’s raw account of her battle with stage 4 breast cancer — squeezing the joy from amidst her struggle
What is it like to have cancer? Hmm, the best way to describe it is your life gets flash-forwarded, flipped, turned upside down and then in the quiet and stillness of a moment a third eye is opened — to see what is important. You’ve joined the club you never wanted to join. Your world is literally rocked, halted and life swirls around you. Certain moments stop and stand still, some come and go in a flash, thankfully, then there are others that leave you wondering, Why me?
I’ve been on this cancer journey since December of 2015. I was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer at the fresh age of 36.
How could I be sick? How could I be stage 4? I grew up organic, I never smoked, I exercised often, it doesn’t run in my family. Is it the environment? Is it from a virus? Was it from the processed food I did eat? They say everyone has the gene and that it has been found in cavemen. The first instinct is to ask, Why? We all know if we find the why we find the cure. Once I accepted the fact that I’ll never know why or how I got sick, then I was on the road to healing.
There were many stages of healing that I had to go through. This is my story and experience; I have realized from talking with many cancer patients that each journey is unique. No two cancers are the same, just like no two lives are the same. I share my journey with you in light that you may understand the challenges, heartache and yes, the beauty that does come with this.
I am a wife of 17 years, mother of four. One boy, 16, and 3 girls, 13, 12, and 7. I honestly feel like this journey is the toughest on the ‘co-survivors’, as they call them — the spouses. My husband. He has picked up the pieces, roles of both parents, and watched the love of his life suffer as well as deal with the drama that’s thrown at us. He has done a great job doing the best he can to make it work. Has he wanted to throw in the towel, and have we had heated arguments? Of course. We are married aren’t we?!
We both strive to not let cancer rob us of our love for each other or our children of their childhood.
Our biggest fear is not only that they will get cancer, but that they will not be able to enjoy their childhood by being overcome with worry. As you can tell, I love and worry about them all. My heart is broken with this diagnosis. I can choose to be a victim of cancer or to rise up and live with cancer. I choose Hope. I choose to make it great. Do I have my hard moments? Of course, I’m human. I cry, let it out, then I look forward at what I can do right now.
Now is what I have — it is all any of us have, really.
I have been on 5 different cocktails of chemo. Been close to remission, only to have the cancer mutate and then to switch to another Chemo Cocktail. The difficult part is hearing that I ran out of options for targeted chemo, and learning that I’m running out of treatment options altogether.
Currently I am on a clinical trial, with hope that this immunoconjugate will work. I had to temporarily move away from my family for 10 weeks to do this. A different city, a different state, I had to let go of parenting for a short bit to heal, with hope that I’ll be around for a long time. Many people say, “you’re the strongest person I know.”
Truth is, you never know how strong you are until being strong is all you have.
I refuse to give up. There is so much life to fight for. I am sad, but if I let that consume me, cancer wins. I am angry that a mother, wife, sister, friend has to go through this, but if I let that consume me, cancer wins. I can easily curl up into a ball and give up, but as much as you all love living your life, I do too. And I won’t go down without a fight. I’m not letting cancer win if I have anything so say in all of this.
I have dreams of getting my life back. Through this journey I have learned to master making lemonade out of lemons. Adversity is never ending even when in the eye of the storm. We’ve had to deal with our own family causing heartache due to selfish intentions. Being told it’s too hard to look at so they don’t come around. Hearing that I’m not the same — the fact is that I am not the same person that I was; I’ve had to seek out options for treatment, alternative forms of diet, medicine, learn while being ill…all this while in the biggest storm life has dealt us. In the end you trust that they didn’t realize how much they have hurt you or they wouldn’t have done what they did. You learn to let a lot go and appreciate the little things.
It is the little things that have become the big things. Taking 10 minutes to tuck each child into bed turns into 20, or until they tell you they’re tired and ready to go to bed. It’s listening more and talking less. It’s giving extra hugs and kisses, it’s embracing family dinners. It’s taking the extra time to tell someone you care and how much they mean to you. It’s writing letters to each child for all of their milestones in case you are gone — so they have something to hold onto to remind them of your love.
You see, I may know my fate, how my story will end. I have been given my death sentence, and I have chosen to make what life I have left — great. Through this emotional rollercoaster, heartache, disappointments, you realize so many different things. Surprisingly, there is beauty through it all. Don’t get me wrong, there is NO beauty in cancer. It’s an ugly beast. The beauty is the way God comforts us. God knows our hearts and our needs. He has never left my side. He may be shaking his head at me when I’ve gone on a tizzy about how people should treat people. Then I acknowledge that they just don’t understand how hard this is. They are misunderstanding my words and intentions, as well as theirs…which can easily be done. You have to take yourself out of the equation, be still, hold a cancer patient’s hand to truly feel what they are feeling.
Don’t ask them how they are, it diminishes us as a person.
I refuse to let my life be solely about cancer. I am a person, I am strong, I am a wife, mother of 4, I am a friend. I am a volunteer, missionary, I love life, I miss my job as a physical therapist. I am still me, I am just sick and trying to get out of this storm. What I would rather hear is “What are you up to today?’ Don’t just read my blog and be a ghost. Stay active in my life and be my friend. I may not be able to dine out like I used to, so let’s dine in. My answer will let you know how I’m feeling. If I am out and about, it’s a good day. If I am laying around, then you know it’s rough. If you are curious about treatment and feelings, be honest and ask. Especially if you don’t understand. Honestly that is why I blog. To help people understand. Before I was diagnosed, I had no clue of everything that went into being a patient. I was naïve to the process.
Pretty much for me, a stage 4 diagnosis meant that my treatment has never stopped. I am currently on my clinical trial — my 6th cocktail. I waited out a hurricane, literally — Hurricane Harvey in Houston — to get my last hope of a rainbow, a cure, that I will come out on the other side. A trial drug called DS8201a has currently been working hard and fast. The side effects have been the same. This trial drug is called an immunoconjugate. It is chemo mixed with immuno-therapy. The chemo kills the cancer, the ‘immuno’ part trains my immune system to attack any abnormal cancer cell. It’s like a trojan horse.
While waiting out the storm the cancer has spread the worst it has ever been, my counts were the highest they’ve ever been. I’m happy to say that after one dose they have dropped all the way down to almost ‘normal’ range. This truly is a miracle. Almost 2 years later, after countless hours of reading, searching, studying, talking to other cancer patients, and now going on my 4th opinion — I refuse to give up. My best advice is if someone tells you no, keep searching, advocating for yourself.
This life is worth fighting for.
[Editor’s Note: Valynda passed away a few months after writing this story and is survived by her loving family.]